Have you ever seen an angel? No, I haven’t either… at least, as far as I know I haven’t. (The Bible says it’s possible to meet an angel without knowing it’s an angel.) But I know someone who has. A small boy in one of the congregations we served told his parents that he’d seen an angel high up in the roof of the church. He was quite matter-of-fact about it, as if this was routine. He wasn’t particularly pious, nor was he boasting (as if seeing an angel would give him extra street cred or Brownie points). Jesus said the Kingdom belongs to children, so maybe a child can see an angel not visible to anybody else.
A lot of the time we have the wrong idea about angels. In the Bible, an angel’s first words to a human being are nearly always “Don’t be afraid”. These are awesome spiritual beings. They are not the chubby babies of Western art nor the pretty children dressed in white and crowned with tinsel of our nativity plays. They tend to scare people. Unless they come incognito to perform acts of service to human beings in need, as documented by Hope Price in her book Angels.
Angels don’t usually reveal their names. The Bible knows only two exceptions, one of which is the appearance of Gabriel in the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel, first to Zechariah who is an elderly priest serving in the Temple at Jerusalem, and then to Mary.
Gabriel tells Zechariah that his prayers have been answered, his wife will bear a son and the child will have a special role in preparing people for the arrival of the Messiah. Zechariah begins to argue, asking how this is possible, since his wife is so old. The angel replies: “I am Gabriel…” Note: he doesn’t say “My name is Gabriel”, but “I am Gabriel”.
Why does Gabriel answer Zechariah’s doubts by announcing his name? Zechariah needs to know Gabriel’s name because the name “Gabriel” is itself the answer to his questions. Zechariah knows about Gabriel. He knows that it was Gabriel who prophesied to Daniel hundreds of years previously that a time was coming when God would fulfil his promises and finally launch his plan for dealing with the sin which ravages his world. Everybody knows about Gabriel.
When the angel says to Zechariah “I am Gabriel” he is telling Zechariah that the time of fulfilment is at hand, that God is on the move: things are going to change. Gabriel delivered the original prophecy; now he has returned to announce its fulfilment.
Gabriel also appears to Mary to tell her that she is to be the mother of the Messiah. Luke doesn’t say whether Mary knew it was Gabriel but he makes sure that we know.
What can we learn from the return of Gabriel?
The Bible is a narrative of God’s dealings with his world. It takes us from pre-history through history to the future beyond history – what Jesus called “the renewal of all things”. It is a varied collection of writings, some of which are quite difficult for us to appreciate or understand, which nevertheless tell a single story. That single story has meaning, purpose and direction, because it is overseen by the loving providence of God. The return of Gabriel is a reminder that God knows what he’s doing even when we don’t, and he keeps his promises even when their fulfilment seems very long delayed. And it’s worth reading the whole book, including the difficult bits, because that way we get a sense of the faithfulness of God
The return of Gabriel also shows us some of the ways God takes our personal stories, including the pain of those stories, and weaves them into the big story of his purpose for the world.
Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth are childless, which is for them both a personal tragedy and a source of social shame. Gabriel reveals to them that God plans to give them a child, against all the normal rules of child-bearing, as a sign of his power to do new things, to overturn conventional expectations. Not just that, but the child will have a special role in preparing the nation for Jesus’ coming. Through their years of grief and prayer, God was preparing for them an answer that would far exceed anything they could have dreamed of.
Mary too is told that her personal story is to become part of God’s story. Zechariah and Elizabeth had been praying for a child and therefore Gabriel’s revelation is an answer to their prayers; Mary had not. She was simply looking forward (we assume) to getting married and living a normal life. Now her life will be anything but normal. She will pay a high price for her high privilege.
For Zechariah and Elizabeth and for Mary, there will be both joy and pain: the joy of playing a part in the drama of God’s purpose for the world – expressed in the songs which they sing in Luke’s Gospel; and the pain of seeing their sons suffer and die for their faithfulness to God.
I wonder if Gabriel’s two appearances in Luke give us a kind of paradigm of how God works in our lives. Some of us are called, like Zechariah and Elizabeth, to continue in the role and position in life which is natural to us, and to serve God there. Some of us, like Mary, are called out of what is familiar and pitched into something that is quite different. Whether we are called to follow the paradigm of Zechariah and Elizabeth or that of Mary, there will be for us, like them, both joy and pain.